On 30 October Christie’s will auction more than 200 works from the collection of the renowned art dealer and scholar, with proceeds to benefit his charitable trust
Eugene V. Thaw, or ‘Gene’ as he was known to friends, is regarded as one of the most influential collectors, scholars and dealers of the 20th century. ‘Gene was the dealer everyone wanted to be,’ explains Alan Wintermute, a senior specialist in Christie’s Old Masters department in New York. ‘He had maybe the most diverse collection I have ever known.’
Born in Manhattan in 1927, Thaw received his BA from St. John’s College in Annapolis before enrolling in the graduate programme in history of art at Columbia University. Just two years later, at only 23 years of age, he founded his first gallery, E.V. Thaw & Co., above the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street in New York.
Thaw’s gallery steadily earned a reputation for its eclectic stock, which ranged from prints by Toulouse-Lautrec to Rembrandt etchings, from ancient bronzes to Native American art. He also mounted the first solo show of the American abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell, then a newcomer to the New York art scene.
‘By the time I started working for him, he had a big reputation and museum directors and private collectors would beat a path to his door,’ says Thaw’s former colleague Patricia Pei. ‘He was very selective about what he took into stock. Many times pictures would come in and he would say, “That’s not good enough for me to offer,” and he would turn it away.’
Across his career, Thaw worked closely with the directors of some of America’s most important museums: the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Frick Collection all benefited from his discerning eye and robust scholarship.
Thaw ‘enriched the wealth of works available to anyone who visits these institutions,’ says Jennifer Tonkovich, the Eugene and Clare Thaw Curator of New York’s Morgan Library & Museum. Thaw ultimately gifted more than 400 drawings to the Morgan, including works by Guardi, Rembrandt and Picasso, as well as 20 letters written and illustrated by Van Gogh. He also established the Morgan’s Thaw Conservation Center, with a $10 million donation.
Despite his expansive tastes, one of Thaw’s biggest passions was undoubtedly Old Masters. In our film, Wintermute examines a picture of a Savoyard girl by Jean-Honoré Fragonard and a scene of figures gathered around around a well by Claude Lorrain, both pictured above.
‘There is a very direct connection, particularly in drawings and in preparatory works, between what an artist thinks — the inspiration, the hand, the gesture, the physicality — and the object that it creates,’ explains Wintermute. ‘Thaw was interested in sharing that creativity, that immediate spark of genius, with other people.’
Thaw passed away in January 2018 at his home in Cherry Valley, New York, aged 90, six months after the death of his wife, Clare. On 30 October Christie’s will hold a dedicated single-owner sale in New York of more than 200 paintings, sculptures and books from the Thaws’ estate. Proceeds from the sale will benefit the Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Charitable Trust, established by the couple in 1981, to support the arts, environmental causes and animal rights.